Preserving the right to life
It’s amazing what happens when you go home for Spring Break. In the week we were gone, Martha Stewart was convicted of Investing While Female; California turned its back on arguably the most exciting and burgeoning civil disobedience movement in some time; Spain got some sense, turned its back on the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and went Socialist; and a man in Fresno found a particularly horrifying way to get mass murder, incest, race, and religious fundamentalism into a single news story. But the most far-reaching, appalling, and almost-overlooked news story of the week came out of a small suburb in Utah, where Melissa Ann Rowland was charged with the devastating crime of Maintaining Bodily Integrity.
On Jan. 13, Rowland, a 28 year old mother of two, suffered what many would consider to be every mother-to-be’s worst nightmare: the delivery of a stillborn child. Last week, Rowland found the worst-case scenario redefined: she was charged with criminal homicide for failing to undergo a Caesarian-section procedure that may or may not have saved her unborn child. This most recent example of the movement to place the rights of the fetus above the rights of the American citizen carries consequences that run far deeper than West Jordan, Utah.
George Bush speaks of the need for a Defense of Homophobia Amendment to thwart the persistence of “activist judges” who act “without regard for the will of the people.” The Rowland case reminds us of the extremely influential and largely unchecked power of truly activist prosecutors who will stop at nothing to find a way to infringe on women’s rights to our own bodies.
In the United States, we have the right to Do-Not-Resuscitate orders, we have the right to not seek medical treatment for illnesses we may wish to attempt to treat homeopathically, and we have the rights to full disclosure of medical risks and informed consent for procedures we choose to undergo. By being charged with criminal homicide for electing to avoid a procedure that is so often foisted upon women unnecessarily, Rowland has suffered the most egregious infringement on a person’s civil rights. She has been denied the rights to her own body and mind.
Whether the Religious Right likes it or not, American women retain the right to prevent and the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. But the problems with the Rowland case reach well beyond the right to abortion and into the realm of Rowland’s own rights as an individual. Rowland did not opt against a C-section as a means to sneak in a late-term abortion under the guise of natural childbirth. Instead, she chose to affirm her rights to protect her own body from being cut open against her will. The prosecutors charging her with murder for doing so have a fundamental misunderstanding of the right to life.
The problems with the Rowland case do not end with the counsel who will sit across the courtroom from her, but unfortunately extend to her own legal representation. When asked to comment on the case, Michael Sikora, Rowland’s attorney, spoke not on his client’s right to preserve her own life. Instead, he underhandedly castigated her mental state, telling the Salt Lake City Tribune that a C-section was major surgery and that “it would come as no surprise that a woman with major mental illness would fear it.” What Sikora fails to recognize is that the most intelligent, sane, and fearless woman may have very good reasons to opt for natural childbirth-and the right to do so is not for the state to decide.
Rowland’s decision to refuse a procedure that may have enabled her fetus to become an American citizen may well come off as jarring, inhumane, and thoughtless to some. But the fact that underlies the most emotional knee-jerk reaction remains: until birth, a fetus is not a citizen with rights under the law. A pregnant woman’s-whether or not she is mentally ill-rights to her own bodily integrity always must be upheld.
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